In a stunning development, Membership First, the radical faction of the Screen Actors’ Guild, was pushed completely out of power in the entertainment industry’s most important union last month, ending an era that reaches back to the 1980’s when leftist Ed Asner was Guild president.
The Guild holds national elections every two years, when a third of its 70 member National Board and members of its three divisional boards stand for re-election. Two years ago, a new moderate alliance built around a long standing group in New York, a new formation in Hollywood and incumbents in the midwest and other regions of the country helped elect a moderate and self-effacing president, Ken Howard, to replace the vocal and controversial leader of the radical faction, Alan Rosenberg.
Now, that same moderate group pushed almost all of the remaining radicals off the Hollywood Division board and Rosenberg himself failed to gain re-election to the National Board. The most visible leader of MF in recent months, Anne Marie Johnson, all but declared the organization dead, stating, “Certain groups have had their time in history to do what they could possibly do, and our time has come and gone.”
The National Board is now firmly in the hands of the moderates as early bargaining has gotten underway with the studios, led by their labor umbrella and bargaining agent, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, or AMPTP.
For many in the union the development was a great relief because of the polarizing effect that Membership First’s approach to union politics had on the union’s internal culture. As I was, before withdrawing from the process, the “leading candidate” to serve as the union’s National Executive Director under Membership First leadership in 2006 I learned a great deal about the union and have followed it closely since.
Overall, there is no doubt that Membership First was possessed of a very narrow, even stultifying image of how a union ought to function. After my withdrawal as NED candidate it took another six months to bring in Doug Allen, a functionary of the Football Players Union who, it turned out, had not only crossed a picket line while a young football player for the Buffalo Bills, but was the lead figure in a scam at the Players’ Union that led to a 28 million dollar judgment against the union for stealing retired player’s images in a deal with Electronic Arts for their gaming products.
Hardly an auspicious beginning as the leader of a union charged with defending its members’ images and reputations in a fiercely competitive and complex business environment. Allen seemed to thrive on images of his life as a linebacker, as if the entertainment industry could be influenced the way it was back in the days of Sid Korshak.
Sure enough, the Producers made mincemeat of the guilds in the 2007-08 bargaining round. Although I had been told during the NED process that a central goal of the Writers’ and Actors’ guilds was to coordinate their efforts to defend the residuals system (which pays guild members for repeated usage of their products down the chain of consumption) and to crack open the 20 billion plus cash cow represented by DVD’s. Instead the Writers Guild lost faith that SAG under Alan and Allen would be a reliable strategic partner. That made the much smaller WGA an easier target for the AMPTP. A lengthy strike by the Writers ended in only modest gains, although their ability to gain some residual coverage in new media (such as online delivery of shows and films) was important.
Conservative leaders at the Directors Guild and the smaller television based AFTRA decided to go its own way as well and quickly signed “me too” agreements based on the WGA formula. That left the MF led SAG alone and in trouble. They had no strategy other than their blunt public statements. They had done nothing to prepare the membership for a last in line position in bargaining but were unwilling to recognize the limits of the situation and compromise in order to fight another day. Negotiations dragged on but the MF team was alienating more and more of their members.
Secretly, some moderate voices in the union began a counter-strategy that included, according to one unconfirmed report, at least one meeting between Robert Pisano, a former studio lawyer and the ousted NED of SAG who is now the head of the studios’ lobby, the MPAA. That meeting does not seem to have led to much but it apparently included Tom Hanks and George Clooney who began to lend their support to a new Hollywood based moderate group called Unite For Strength, or UFS.
A central goal of UFS is to “unite” or merge with the smaller TV actors union, AFTRA, arguing somewhat oddly that unless the two unions merge the studios can play the unions off against one another. But for more than 20 years the two unions have bargained as a team and the basic terms and conditions in their two contracts are identical. Where a problem has emerged is in new areas such as cable and now digital media where AFTRA has claimed SAG does not have exclusive bargaining rights, thus enabling AFTRA to negotiate lower rate contracts to attract employers. This is consistent with AFTRA’s historic origins as a union formed to compete against SAG with lower rates for television film actors in the 1950s. Of course, a merged union would still have the temptation to offer such deals, as SAG itself does for new media and low budget independent productions.
That UFS has focused so intensely on merger with AFTRA as the solution to the union’s problems suggests, in fact, that it is sticking its head in the sand to avoid the real issues. Nonetheless, the mood of the members had by the fall of 2008 shifted against MF. UFS and friends in NY and the other regions of the country were able to get Ken Howard elected president as well as achieve a narrow majority on the National Board. They quickly moved to oust Doug Allen and brought in a former studio lawyer, David White, who had been recruited from the studios’ big corporate law firm, O’Melveny and Myers, to join SAG as general counsel when Robert Pisano, then a partner at O’Melveny, was hired as NED. When Pisano was fired by Rosenberg, White eventually left as well, to set up a law firm that represented producers on labor issues.
Now in the most recent election season, the moderate alliance has solidified its hold on the union leadership and made the merger with AFTRA its immediate priority once the current round of bargaining is complete.
But a big question remains: what exactly is the strategy for the current round of bargaining?
If it exists, which I doubt, the union has been deadly silent about it. Of course, that is proof that it does not exist. The heart of any union’s strategy must be to increase leverage against the employers before formal bargaining exists. Once the battle is underway it is very hard to regain lost time. But SAG under President Howard has been almost a ghost, you think you see him and then he disappears. While moderate talking heads on various blogs promise a secret strategy is in place, the fact that SAG itself has done nothing to increase its visibility or to present the union’s arguments for improved wages, hours and working conditions to a wider audience means there is no additional leverage at the table.
Although DVD’s continue to be a cash cow for the industry, for example, the union reportedly has dropped any attempt to change the revenue sharing model for DVD’s that even Wall Street analysts say is lopsided. Since new media has yet, and will not for quite some time, replace DVD revenue in the income statements of the studios, focus on new media will mean little for actors’ pockets.
Three years ago, the studios knocked the guilds on their heels with demands for an end to the cherished and critically important residuals system. Residuals are the lifeblood of many actors who do not have the steady work of many in the entertainment industry. Residual payments can help actors survive from project to project, thus achieving for the industry a level of labor flexibility and reliability that has made Hollywood a critical American industry for many decades.
While bargaining has been underway for a little over a week, there is no word on whether the studios are pushing for such dramatic structural change. SAG members better hope that that is not the case, because their leadership is ill prepared to deal with such a scenario.